If there's any question that Kenneth Branagh is one of those great, underrated directors who has been languishing in relative obscurity for far too long, that's likely to change as more and more people start to see his work in Marvel Studios' Thor.
That statement might come across as the height of hyperbole, but the finished movie is one of the more impressive achievements of Branagh's extensive career as a filmmaker, not just in the way he captures the perfect balance of humor and drama that we've come to expect from a fun, summer blockbuster, but also in the way he takes what works from the Thor comics and creates something that can be enjoyed by someone who has never heard of Thor.
Whether it's the casting of Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki, getting heavyweights like Sir Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman to take on iconic comic book characters, creating the worlds of Asgard and Jotunheim and figuring out how to tie them to Earth with a different kind of "rainbow bridge" and a logical balance of science and magic. All the while, the movie still keeps Thor firmly in the Marvel Movie Universe established by Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" movies. The combination of these things proves what a huge leap Branagh has made as a filmmaker by directing Thor, and it's certainly a long way from adapting the works of William Shakespeare or Mary Shelley, though surely having those under his belt made the transition to adapting the likes of Lee and Kirby that much easier.
SuperHeroHype had been hoping to talk to Branagh for as long as we've known he was making this movie, and we finally got our chance this past week for this extended interview where we talked about all aspects of making a movie that should do for Branagh as a director what Iron Man did for Jon Favreau. We got him at the end of a long weekend of interviews for the movie and we assumed he might be tired of talking about Thor by that point, but boy, were we wrong!
SuperHeroHype: I haven't spoken to you since you took on this project. First of all, were you a comic book person when you were a kid, did you read them at all? Kenneth
Kenneth Branagh: I read English comics like the "Hotspur" and the "Victory," which were very English in character, some of the English comedy comics like "The Dandy" and "Beano." The American comics were so exotic to me, and they were a little more expensive, so the urban ones, your Batmans and Supermans, they didn't really mean as much. It was just too far away, it was too much to understand from where I was. But "Thor" I did know. I'd be interested to know whether they sold more copies in Europe because I just felt I saw more of it when I was a kid in the late ‘60s, and I certainly saw that kind of epic character, that epic image. I loved this kind of carved out of rock man, this brutal, primitive man. I remember images when I was a kid there of him knelt down under the yoke of the tree trunk and his arms were just as big, and Loki behind with a big horned helmet and mountains and rain, and it all just seemed so epic and massive. That character and those kinds of images definitely, I enjoyed them and it made an impression on me, Thor particularly. When it came to this thing coming up, I was very much reminded of how memorable those images were.
SHH: I remember there was a time years ago when they were talking about you directing a Harry Potter movie, I guess it was right after the movie you were in. Did you not want to do something that big at that time? Why did you want to do this one rather than Harry Potter when you had that opportunity?
Branagh: Well, to be perfectly honest, I didn't get the job back then was the answer. We got down to a kind of conversation where it just didn't happen at the end. I had a lot of conversations, and it was interesting to be introduced to a world of that scale. I suppose that was most interesting from the point of view of understanding a little of the massivity of those kinds of projects. I'm glad that it worked out for this one, because I felt it was absolutely thrilling–and certainly for the last three weeks–to not have anybody say to me, "Why did you remake this film?" To do an original story was so fantastic – though it's from the comics and they're aware of the character, but lots of people don't, of course. To come to it with some sense of what the scale will be. When you work on a movie like the "Harry Potter" films, you work on it and you play Gilderoy Lockhart, and they use all these photographs to make-up this crazy obnoxious autobiography, a book that will appear on the set. You look down the 30 rows of seated desks, and you realize that they've made one of those books for everyone with all the pictures inside every single one of them. That's when you realize, "My God, the scale of this is incredible." On any film I would make, you put one page in a book and film only the thing that you needed to film, but that sort of detail was incredible. I knew coming into this that there would be a similar kind of attention to detail that would be completely absorbing from Day 1, and indeed it was, and the tempo of this never changed. The intensity, the number of questions and the challenges from Day 1 extended all the way through to finishing it two and a half weeks ago.
SHH: I was actually impressed with the scale of this, because it was even bigger than I imagined it would be. I had seen footage and clips of Asgard but I had no idea how big the action got.
Branagh: Well, I'm glad to hear that because "epic" is a word that you just associate with Thor. Asgard and Odin is basically the way we tell the story, and the stakes needed to be high if we wanted to somehow bring off the idea of how in the context of their cosmos, how hugely important it all was. That affected everything. It affected the father and son relationship in the center of the movie. Also, it was the big quality against which you can set scenes on Earth that could be funny quite the contrast because it gives you that light and shade, that kind of contrast, so giving that dimension was important. Things that we simply couldn't avoid the challenge of were very risky, like the realizing of the rainbow bridge, the Bifrost in the comics, as you know, is so often just sort of a solid freeway, a rainbow line just heading down from a rather primitively-drawn Asgard, sometimes down to Earth. It has great charm and amazing sort of iconic impact in the comics, but is a hell of a challenge to put on the screen. But yet, that kind of challenge, risk, whatever you like to call it, everything that could be a weakness of the film also stood the chance of being one of the strengths and one of the things that could maybe make the film distinctive in a world that people say is overpopulated.
SHH: I was also impressed by the designs of Asgard and the Bifrost. It didn't look like anything in the comics and I couldn't really even figure out the reference. It seemed to be a mix of fantasy and mechanical stuff. How did you go about designing that and what were your references to designing that world?
Branagh: We definitely looked at the comics for sure, and we looked in the sense of the classical world, if you look at the opening of "Gladiator" and you see a series of montages that show you the glory that was Rome. There's a classical style. We had some influence of the classical world – all of the status that were around Asgard that is a feature of the comics, but we also needed to produce textures and shapes and reflective materials in the way architecture presented itself, but also made you feel people traveled through space to get here, and that they're super-advanced technological civilizations and their influences include the ancient world and the classical world of the Vikings. But also, they are in control of magic that is simply science that we don't understand. We couldn't help but to have some of the fantastical elements, but that was part of what we were trying to enjoy, so we looked at the comics. We looked at the kinds of primitive art you'd find on wall paintings in Scandinavia. We looked at modern architecture. I remember when I was pitching the job, I showed Kevin (Feige) views of the stadium for the Beijing Olympics and the geometric shapes and unusual modern architecture. We were everywhere and anywhere we could find the thing that would be something original in a film version to try to take the best of everything that it needed to have. Aside from actually physically executing that, we shot a tiny bit at the Getty Center in Los Angeles as well, which is amazing, futuristic kind of building with amazing textured marble. It's a little disguised with how we treat it, but we went to a real place that actually has almost a kind of Asgardian super-modernist and yet classical feel to it. So we really magnified our way around every kind of influence and then aside from that execution, it was the balance of how often were we there? How much could the audience take of that before we needed to bring ourselves literally back to Earth or to the planet Jotunheim. It was always, from Day 1, kind of judging that tonal recipe to try and maximize what was different and distinctive in the "Thor" comic, all the kind of potentially disparate elements, but putting them in some kind of relationship to each other that one didn't outweigh the other and confuse the audience. This was the challenge on a daily basis right through the entire process.